WRITTEN BY DONNA ANASTASI | EDITED BY JENNIFER PARLATI
Caring for gerbils is easy, as long as you understand fully the concept of “clan”. “Clan” is what makes gerbils unique and engaging. “Clan” makes gerbils different from most other animals with a devotion and care for one another is in some ways akin to human relations.
“Clan” first and foremost means that gerbils need a gerbil companion. This is essential to their health and well-being. A gerbil companion is needed for warmth, security, protection, grooming, nesting, and just gnawing up a paper towel roll together.
So, can you just place two gerbil together? No! While gerbils are closely bonded to their clan members, outsiders will be attacked violently. There are some exceptions: such as introducing two very young pups or a nurturing adult male to a pup. But in most cases, the way to introduce two gerbils is by using a “split tank”. This means separating the tank on the diagonal with sturdy mesh wire, anchoring it to the tank with masking tape (providing no gaps for the gerbils to go under, over, or around). Put one gerbil on each side and swap them back and forth as many times a day as you can. When you see them building nests next to one another on either side of the mesh, they are becoming “clanned”.
In about a week, remove the divider. Watch the pair closely until they groom one another and share the same nest. Also, with any gerbil introduction make sure you wear heavy gloves. If you stick your bare hands into the middle of a gerbil fight, you will receive a set of deep puncture wounds intended as the death blow to the gerbil combatant. If one gerbil chases the other around the tank at top speed with the victim flinching or leaping in the air, immediately replace the divider. Put one gerbil on either side and give them more time in the split cage. If the gerbils get into a “ball fight”, replace the divider. After a full-fledged, ball fight battle chance for these two being clanned is slim.
Gerbil society is a matriarchy, which means at most one dominant adult female to any clan. Here are the possible make-ups for gerbil clans:
- A pair of females
- A pair of males
- A larger clan of all males (up to five)
- A male and a female
- A female and/or male with a litter of pups (under 9 weeks)
The absolute worst clanning setup is a “harem”, that is to say, one male and multiple females. This will not work for gerbils. Once they reach full maturity two females will fight to the death over the male. If any pups are born before this, the female(s) who did not birth the pups will maim and kill these little “intruders”.
Gerbils bred in a proper clan setup (namely, one male and one female) are attentive and dedicated parents. Both the mother and father gerbils take an active role in caring for the pups.
A tricky aspect of clanning is that if a gerbil gets coated with the smell of a stranger gerbil it will be attacked. Therefore, it is important never to share toys between gerbil tanks and not to use the same plastic containers to hold your different tanks when you clean out the housing. It is a good habit to wash your hands between handing gerbils from different tanks. And always wash your hand before handing pups since gerbil moms are on high alert against foreign smells. If a gerbil is separated from its cage mate for over 24 hours, the gerbil is no longer recognized as “clan”; re-introduce the gerbil using a split cage.
While gerbils are adaptive to changes to their clan composition when they are young (under six months), once your gerbils are older, they need to stay in their established clans. Breaking up an older breeding or same-sexed pair can be so traumatic on the gerbils that they do not survive the split on their own or even with a new partner.
Observing gerbils in their clan as they groom, nest, play, and learn from one another is one of the best parts about keeping gerbils. As I watch their family interactions, I often think we people have much to learn from these small creatures.